Two Dog Whistles (UPDATE)

I am hyper-sensitive to racial bigotry as any long time reader here could easily attest.  Given the ethnic diversity of my family, such a finely tuned ear towards racial dog whistles is almost a must.

While I consider the fight for civil rights and against racism to be the number one issue of import to me on a personal level, I temper my passions with what I hope to be understanding allowances for honest ignorance.  After all, I only learned during the course of this election season that the term “hysterics” can actually be taken as a misogynist dog whistle.  This was not because I think I’m particularly deaf towards the fight for gender equality so much as I simply wasn’t educated on the term’s history and past usage in subjugating women.

So I tend not to try and raise a big stink unless I’m absolutely positive someone is using something with malicious intent.  I continue to believe that when someone simply lacks the proper understanding, the last course of action is to malign them when simply informing them would be far more productive.

I say all of this because through the course of the day I let two potentially racial dog whistles blow right past me and I didn’t even notice.  From someone who claims to be hyper-sensitive to this kind of thing, I was a little ashamed.

The first is that of “socialism”.  If you’re going, “huh?” right now, don’t fret, I was also not too terribly long ago.  There’s no denying the fact that the latest and greatest tactic from the McCain campaign has to paint Obama as a socialist, or that he is prescribing socialism for this country, or that if he is elected we will ultimately become a socialist country.

I’ve never really thought much about this whole tactic in racial terms.  This seemed to me to be the usage of two different mechanisms at once; neither of which having much to do directly with race.  On one hand, it drudges up the old cold war anxieties that continue to plague this nation on all things socialist and communist.  As I’ve discussed with at least one old friend in the past (who will for now remain nameless), despite the belief outside of this country that socialism in some form or another is acceptable, inside this country due to lingering cold war apprehensions, generations will come and go before any kind of meaningful socialism movement could take root here in earnest (caveats: I am myself a capitalist, and there is the possibility that the current economic crisis could hasten socialisms progress towards acceptability in this country).

So that was one half of the equation, to open up old wounds which would be particularly powerful among older voters who would have the highest probability of internalizing the emotions from the Red Scare.

The other part of this equation is the more general tactic to “otherize” Obama, to continue to portray him as someone that is unlike “us” and by “us” I am referring to “Real Americans.”  There is a subtle difference between this more general dynamic, and the more specific one that deals with anti-communist sentiment in this country, but subtle or not the difference is there and it is in the space between the two that gives me license to suggest that there is perhaps an indirect racial aspect at work.

That’s to say that this “socialism” tactic to “otherize” Obama is only a smaller portion of the greater tactic to “otherize” Obama which does reach into areas of whisper campaigns and such.  For example, Senator McCain directly brings up William Ayers, and no one would say that this is a direct attempt to link Obama with Osama bin Laden, but then the Virginia GOP chair took it a step further in connecting the dots left unconnected with the top of the ticket when he specifically instructed canvassers to draw the link between Obama and Osama.

But as I would come to find out, the label, “socialist” actually does have a more direct racial implication.

J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI from 1924 to 1972, used the term liberally to describe African Americans who spent their lives fighting for equality.

Those freedom fighters included the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who led the Civil Rights Movement; W.E.B. Du Bois, who in 1909 helped found the NAACP which is still the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization; Paul Robeson, a famous singer, actor and political activist who in the 1930s became involved in national and international movements for better labor relations, peace and racial justice; and A. Philip Randolph, who founded and was the longtime head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and a leading advocate for civil rights for African Americans.

Now this is direct historical context that takes my second approach to the socialist label, the indirect racial relation to otherize Obama, and sort of flips the concept on its head.  It’s been done directly in the past specifically in a racial context.

Still, I am initially unwilling to go as far as the author of the post excerpted above in condemning the usage of the label as a definitive dog whistle on the merits of his historical argument alone.  After all, if I didn’t know that socialism could be a racial dog whistle until today, then there are going to be plenty of people out there that still don’t know.

But there is a crack in this wall of logic that begins with one aspect of the Republican ticket, namely that while I’m not old enough to have personally experienced this specific dog whistle, McCain is.  I’m still not completely sold at this point in the argument, but there is a far greater probability for McCain to understand the full context than there is for me.

What makes this a credible candidate as an honest to goodness racial dog whistle is that it ends up dovetailing with another term that has been used an awful lot on the trail, “welfare.”

Now, I really am ashamed at not having my racist alarm going off once the McCain camp started dialing up the welfare rhetoric specifically because I know that welfare is a racial dog whistle.  It’s used stereotypically, for instance in the term “Welfare Queen,” just as that stereotype can be used to generate racial tension among white people who feel that these so-called welfare queens are leaches on hard working taxpayers.

The message that this sends to voters for whom race will play a larger factor is also pretty easy to pick up on: You think black people are getting a free ride now?  Just wait until they elect a black president.

But to see how these two dog whistles work in concert, I’m going to turn things over to Rachel Maddow who shows how “socialist” and “welfare” dovetail with a possible attempt to manually instigate a Bradley Effect.

(ed note: I’m having a difficult time getting the player to run properly, so please go watch the video here)

Now, I can see some criticism coming towards this post; charges of race baiting against the McCain campaign have to consist of some pretty weak tea if I have to spend so much time explaining it.  But that’s the whole point of a “dog whistle.”  Just like real dog whistles, most people can’t actually hear the sound being played, only the dogs you are blowing the whistle for.

The whole point is that these are terms that maintain a veneer of respectability that don’t necessarily strike the wrong note with most people, but for some who grasp the vernacular, the intent of the phrase means something totally different.

They don’t always have to be intentionally triggered; after all, the reason why they have veneer of respectability is because there can be respectable arguments built around them.  For instance, the term “states’ rights” is a widely recognized dog whistle, but there are plenty of honest arguments that can be made for states’ rights.  In this instance, the dog whistle factor comes into play when people with more sinister intent rally around the candidate for purposes that the candidate does not intend (In this case segregation, and if you want to see an example of this, back in the Republican Primaries, there was something of a stir caused when Ron Paul started attracting the support of white pride organizations because, as a libertarian, Paul would be the biggest advocates of states rights).

And of course dog whistles can be employed intentionally, cleverly employed rhetoric that serves as good as a wink or a nod to just the right groups (an example here would be “strict constructionist judges” is basically code for judges who would overturn Roe v Wade).

So is this a concerted effort by the McCain campaign to race bait during desperate times in the final days of an election?  I don’t know, and seeing as how McCain’s not likely to come out and say he’s trying to appeal to the racist vote, we can’t ever really know for sure.  I think the motive is there, and I think the argument that we see in the clip above definitely shows means and opportunity.

But I’m not willing to condemn whole heartedly, and unfortunately arguments such as this could generate outrage that would be counter-productive to my intent.

What I do know is that even if this is all intentional, I still don’t think it will work.  Look, I’ve been doing a lot of polling analysis lately; more than my usual fare which is saying something.  And through everything I’ve seen, while there are some question marks still out there, there are also some truths that tell us about the nature of this race.

First, Obama is occupying a very narrow band across most polls, and that band puts him at or over the 50% mark.  This means that the core of Obama’s support is rock steady, and it alone could very well be enough to win him the election.  These are people who are supporting Obama despite Jeremiah Wright, despite Tony Rezko, and despite Bill Ayers.  If this is the case, they are not likely to get shaken off because all of a sudden they realize that Obama is a scary black man.

The other truth that I have noticed is that McCain occupies across the polls a very wide band, one that encompasses anywhere from the very high thirties to the middle forties.  What this tells me is that McCain’s core of support is relatively small compared to that of Obama’s; given the polls I have seen, I would only put McCain’s unshakable support at about 40%, and you’re going to find that most of the people who believe the worst about Obama are in that 40%

The other 5-7% of floating support for McCain is a very interesting group of voters.  Polling would suggest that most of these are people that just don’t believe the mud-slinging and aren’t swayed by racial tension.  But also we can’t discount recent reports that suggest that there are even racists who are overlooking their own racial apprehensions to support Obama.

So in this 5-7% band, we are seeing people who may under normal circumstances vote for McCain, or at the very least vote against Obama, but because of a number of factors including the economic crisis and the stark contrast in temperament between the two candidates, just can’t necessarily commit.

What this means is that at best, the only possible benefit McCain may get from intentionally race baiting at this point is a solidification of support among a fringe group of his own base, or to be more fair, a fringe group that want an excuse not to vote for Obama.  In the end, this 5-7% band isn’t nearly enough to give McCain the kind of assistance he needs in order to even be competative in this election.

UPDATE: I apologize to Jules Crittendon for using big words and lengthy, detailed, and nuanced arguments.  Next time, I’ll try and frame my arguments in such a manner that my four year old can understand.  Admittedly, this might not be enough, after all Jules is the same blogger who thought that Germany bombed Pearl Harbor (for the historically challenged that would be the Japanese).  Sorry, Jules.  I just can’t take it any lower than the four year old level, as the constant animosity between myself and my two year old would suggest; I seem to have a very hard time communicating on that low of a level.

3 Responses to “Two Dog Whistles (UPDATE)”

  1. Mark says:

    I hate to say it, Kyle, but I think you’re way off-base on this one. For starters, Robeson (who, FWIW, is the most prominent alum of my high school), for all his heroism and bravery, was not only a socialist, but was in fact secretly a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. I don’t mean this in a perjorative sense – after he died, the American Communist Party acknowledged his membership*. Similarly, A. Phillip Randolph was a devout and open socialist. DuBois, in his later years, was also openly a Marxist.

    Also- J. Edgar Hoover’s use of the term “socialist” as a perjorative for these specific individuals is hardly fresh in people’s minds; in fact, I can’t find a single instance of him using the phrase for any of these individuals, although he did, at least early on, investigate MLK for Communist sympathies. That’s not to say he never made such comments – just that, if he did, that usage is long since forgotten.

    The other thing is – in Hoover’s eyes, anyone who was a potential enemy of the state/”troublemaker” was considered a socialist/communist. So you can’t interpret Hoover’s use of the term to be a synonym for “black leader”; instead, he really used it as a synonym for “dissenter.”

    * Despite my personal devotion to free-market capitalism, I don’t think Robeson’s Communism in any way tarnishes his status as a man of principle, especially considering the circumstances that led to his Communism.

    (NB: Crittenden’s quote about the Germans bombing Pearl Harbor is a clear reference to the legendary John Belushi line in Animal House).

  2. Well, in my defense, I’m not necessarily coming out and saying the socialist charge is irrefutably a dog whistle, and in fact I do make that remark further down in the post. What the point of this post is to show that that is what this could be. Certainly the dovetailing of socialism and welfare lends credence to at least the possibility.

    As for the animal house reference, I didn’t know that. One of these days I’m going to actually watch that movie. Again in my defense, Crittenden could have used quotes or made reference to those of us geeks who haven’t watched it. Not when you are participating in a blogosphere full of people who are going to challenge you on historical accuracy and use anything and everything they can to pick you apart.

    I’m just saying.

  3. Thomas Jackson says:

    Of course welfare is a dog whistle, just like sub prime mortgages, affirmative action, and Rev Wright. Because only minorities get these things right?

    Robeson and DuBois were communists because they were black, they were c0ommunists because they were brain dead. Obama lacks the brains and courage to admit what he truly is, although a look at his friends and positions make this clear to the casual and interested observer.


  1. Jules Crittenden » Etymoronology - [...] Comments from Left Field, longwindedly, “Socialist” and “welfare” … racist dog whistles! [...]

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